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In 2021, the reality TV project The activist has ruffled a lot of people, especially in the nonprofit sector. The basic premise was that activists and celebrities would compete in challenges to raise awareness for their causes in hopes of making it to the G20 summit.
Needless to say, the show was canceled before it aired. Vu Le, writer and thinker behind Nonprofit AF, explained the cancellation best: “Forcing activists to compete in a Hunger Games for the crumbs thrown away by the rich. Measuring success through social media engagement. Having celebrities who know little or nothing about these issues judging activists with years of experience. And do it all as entertainment.
I am a journalist and writer; by day, I’m a fundraising researcher. In other words, I seek out individuals, foundations, and corporations for our nonprofit clients to help raise funds for their respective causes. So naturally, I’m fascinated when discussions of philanthropy and nonprofits arise in daily life, because I spend so much time thinking about motivations and wealth.
I find it fascinating what people understand about nonprofits as depicted in movies, books, or even social media (fiction or not). My husband will tell you that I’ve been known to scream on TV when I see something that doesn’t ring true in the nonprofit world.
When I’m not shouting at the media, I’m interested in how philanthropy and wealth appear in fiction and how those depictions can highlight or critique the field in which I work. So here are eight recently published books that explore different facets of the philanthropic world. Some of the books focus on traditional philanthropy and nonprofit organizations; others focus on wealth, patronage and more.
Trust by Hernan Diaz
Speaking of wealth, Trust offers a multifaceted view of wealth and the rise of the rich and famous in the early 1900s. The book opens with an excerpt from the “famous” Bonds book, written in 1938, which recounts the story of a wealthy financier and his elusive wife. But this is not the only version of the story. Told in four parts, the story and its interpretations of this couple unfolds. What was interesting was the thread about wealth creation and philanthropy. The Financier makes a lot of money with Black Thursday while everyone loses their shirts. His wife was a patron of the arts, supporting artists and charities, using the money they got from the market…
It’s an interesting look at the phenomena we see in droves today: billionaires getting richer as people suffer, then donating their money to social services and more to alleviate the suffering.
The long corner by Alexandre Maksik
Solomon Fields, a run-down journalist, hates his job in the advertising and art world. He feels he disappointed his bohemian grandmother who escaped the Nazis and wanted him to live life to the fullest. When she dies unexpectedly, Fields quits her job and seizes an interesting opportunity by writing a profile on Sebastian Light, a mysterious patron of the arts who has a private compound for artists to create. Light is a strange man who has built a kind of cult of personality with the artists he supports. Fields is both attracted and repelled by the station; Is this complex real or is it a show for its benefit? I think the book does a great job exploring the complicated relationship between wealthy patrons and the artists they support.
Benefit from by Siobhan Phillips
When Laura gets a Weatherfield Foundation scholarship to study at Oxford University, it’s the chance of a lifetime for her. But she feels set apart from her classmates; they came from privileged backgrounds and she didn’t. When she loses her job years later, a friend helps her find a job at the Foundation to write her story on her 100th birthday. But as she delves into the past, she discovers that the foundation’s wealth lies in slavery and pain. Not to mention, when she reaches out to her alumni, she discovers that academia has a dark side. It is an important satire on the world of university foundations and scholarships.
The last day of Dava Shastri by Kirthana Ramisetti
Have you ever been curious what your obituary would say if you were to pass? The richest woman in the world, Dava Shastri decides to gather her children on her private island by announcing her death prematurely and letting them see her obituaries, thinking that she will be praised for all her philanthropy. Instead, secrets she wanted to keep hidden are revealed. Will she be able to reconcile her past before her death? Can philanthropy right the wrongs of the past or does it just make them green again?
The call by Janice Hallett
The call is a murder mystery comprised of emails, memos, text messages, and other ephemera. Two lawyers are assigned to review the documents by a senior associate as he believes the wrong person went to jail and the killer revealed it in the documents. It opens with Fairway Players rehearsing their All My Sons piece; a new person has joined the cast, having recently returned from Africa where she worked in the field of health with her husband. But the play becomes more than just a play when the director’s granddaughter and his wife, who plays the lead role, are diagnosed with brain cancer. Everyone prepares to raise funds to pay for the girl’s experimental treatment. But then things take a turn for the worse when one of the cast members is found dead. It’s a fascinating look at the pressures of crowdsourcing for health reasons as well as the challenges and risks of international aid work.
Take my hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Nonprofits are supposed to help people, right? Unfortunately, this is not always or even currently true. Take my hand explores the horrific history of forcible sterilization for mostly poor, black women in the United States Civil Townsend joined the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic as a nurse to help provide medical care to the local community in 1975. She approaches a local family where he was told to administer injections to their young daughters aged 11 and 13, which seems extremely young. But soon, she learns that the injections have done more harm than good. The family planning clinic can hurt the very people it wanted to help. Can she make amends?
give to others by Donna Leon
This is the 31st book in Donna Leon’s incredible Commissario Guido series. Commissioner Guido is Deputy Commissioner of the Venetian Police. An old friend of his mother asked him for a favor. Her daughter’s husband, an accountant, has hinted that he may have put them all at risk. The old friend asks Guido to find out what could be going on. Deciding against his best instincts, he delves into the matter, focusing on the husband’s job as an accountant. As Guido investigates, there are hints that there might be something wrong with the charity the husband had worked for. It’s a great series that examines the world of wealth and charity.
twelve tomorrowsByzantine Empathy by Ken Liu
So this news may not be that recent, but it is about non-profit organizations and cryptocurrency, which is a topic that fascinates me. Originally published in twelve tomorrows, edited by Wade Roush, the story explores the idea of using cryptocurrency and virtual reality in the nonprofit sector. We know empathy is key to getting people to support philanthropic causes, but is there a limit to what empathy can do or what technology can do? How about using Virtual Reality to see the perspectives of people facing oppression? And you can give the cryptocurrency directly to these people? Two former roommates face off on opposite sides of the equation to make the world a better place.
I hope you find these readings to raise important and necessary questions about the nonprofit world. If you want more fiction books on philanthropy, here is my list of four extra booksor if you want nonfiction books on philanthropy, check out another list of five nonfiction books that I assembled.